A clogged road paved with perks

Traffic congestion across most of the country is likely to get worse before it gets better, thanks to the obstructionist tactics of an old guard Democrat in the House of Representatives.

Here’s why: Earlier this year, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., bluntly told state officials to forget about using public/private partnerships to finance building new roads. Oberstar is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Cash-strapped state and local governments are increasingly turning to PPPs to finance congestion-busting roads that should have been built years ago. Tolls are usually part of the agreements, used both to help manage congestion and as an incentive for the private partners.

Oberstar wants no part of PPPs, telling state officials in a May 10 letter: “The committee will work to undo any state PPP agreements that do not fully protect the public interest and integrity of the national system.”

On the merits, Oberstar couldn’t be more removed from reality. State and local authorities see PPPs as necessary because the federal highway funding system has become clogged with earmarks, bureaucratic red tape and misguided priorities that favor mass transit.

Add to those problems the fact the days are long gone when officials could hike fuel taxes to cover spiraling road maintenance costs, much less pay for construction of new routes.

As Pierce Homer, Virginia’s transportation secretary said in response to Oberstar, states must find new ways “to generate critically needed revenue for transportation.” Pierce added that Oberstar doesn’t see “the need for congestion management.”

It is hard to imagine anybody not seeing the need for congestion management these days. More likely, Oberstar is worried about protecting congressional perks, especially being able to go behind closed doors to earmark hundreds of millions of transportation tax dollars for special interests. Remember the infamous Bridge to Nowhere?

Transportation spending bills traditionally are among the most pork-laden, with more than 6,000 earmarks last year. Nobody knows how many are in the 2007 transportation bill, however, because Oberstar refuses to make the committee’s earmark requests public. Why? “I think it would be mean-spirited to say we are going to hang out all these projects and let all these members be embarrassed,” Oberstar said.

What is embarrassing here is that Oberstar thinks it’s not clear that letting states partner with private companies will make them less dependent upon earmark-addicted politicians in Washington and their friends in the bureaucracy.

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